City Of Death at 40: revisiting Doctor Who’s most-watched story

“Is no one interested in history?!” 40 years on, we revisit Douglas Adams’ hugely influential Doctor Who serial, City Of Death.

“Well, I suppose the best way to find out where you’ve come from is to find out where you’re going and then work backwards.”

To this day, City Of Death holds the highest viewing figures for any Doctor Who story on UK TV. Due to a technician’s strike that knocked out ITV for several weeks, plenty of programmes on the two BBC television channels enjoyed increased ratings, but it’s auspicious that this particular Tom Baker serial wound up being seen by an average of 14.5 million viewers across its four instalments. Completely by accident, this Douglas Adams-penned escapade happens to be the ideal story for introducing new viewers to classic Who.

Although the Paris-set sci-fi crime caper wasn’t so warmly embraced in fan publications at the time, some of which decried its comedic tone as spoof-like, City Of Death now regularly places in the top 10 stories of all time in fan polls. Plus, this curio from Baker’s penultimate season as the Doctor has proven quite influential on the modern incarnation of the show, with new series showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat singing its praises.

The story starts with an exploding spaceship, in a prelude set before life on Earth began (and the serial is famously hazy on the dates there) before smoothly segueing to Paris in 1979. Travelling using the TARDIS randomiser, the Fourth Doctor and his Time Lady companion Romana (who has very recently regenerated into Lalla Ward) plan a day out as he calls the city “the only place in the universe where one can relax entirely”.

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But this being Doctor Who, the duo notice a series of temporal disturbances and wind up in the home of Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover), an art collector and philanthropist who is planning an audacious heist. With lovably blunt private investigator Duggan (Tom Chadbon) in tow, the Doctor and Romana discover just how bonkers Scarlioni’s scheme truly is.

If you haven’t got around to watching this serial yet, or you’re otherwise wondering what serial to watch as a way into the classic series of Doctor Who while you wait for Series 12, this is essential viewing. So, before we go into detail about the serial, what it brings to the show, and why it holds up so well, here’s your spoiler warning

The Gamble With Time

City Of Death started as a pitch from David Fisher, titled The Gamble With Time. Set primarily in 1928, his first drafts saw the Doctor and Romana helping a private detective to investigate the theft of the Mona Lisa by Count Scarlioni. Tracking the count’s wife to Monte Carlo, they discover that she’s using futuristic technology to rig casino games and funding her husband’s dangerous time travel experiments with her winnings.

One late scene in the time-hopping serial was set in contemporary Paris, prompting production unit manager John Nathan-Turner to suggest that the show could afford a location shoot in Paris by sending a stripped-down crew across the Channel. Thus, the setting of the story was rejigged to make the most of what would be Doctor Who’s first-ever overseas location shoot.

Although he wrote the following Season 17 serial The Creature From The Pit, Fisher was unavailable to deliver new drafts for the serial. With location shooting set to begin the following Monday, producer Graham Williams locked the notoriously deadline-averse Adams (then the show’s script editor) in his home study for an intensive weekend writing session that produced City Of Death, a seemingly generic title that puns on the French name for the city of love (think “cité de l’amour” and “cité de la mort”.)

As well as transplanting the action from 1920s Europe to a more modern setting, Adams’ scripts omitted the gambling elements, which Williams felt were unsuitable for a family-friendly show. The combination of Fisher’s story and Adams’ unmistakable scripting was credited to “David Agnew” (a BBC pseudonym that had previously been used for Season 15’s The Invasion Of Time) being credited at the start of each episode.

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True to its original title, this gamble with time paid off, resulting in some of the best production value in the entire original run. For most of the first episode, it luxuriates in montages of our heroes gadding around Paris having a lovely time, which complements the more unusual Doctor-companion dynamic of intellectual equals exploring the universe together. Both actors are at the peak of their powers in this serial.

Part One’s pacing is unusually lax for this era of the show, with only hints as to what’s causing the disruptions in time that inevitably capture the two Time Lords’ interest. With Julian Glover and Catherine Schell snaking around in the background as Count and Countess Scarlioni, the episode focuses less on seeding the plot than it does on enjoying 1979’s “bouquet”. The production truly makes the most of its location work.

The contemporary setting is, in itself, uncommon for a show that had spent the better part of the last decade on “present-day” stories that were set five minutes into the future. All those more recent jokes about whether the Doctor’s time working for UNIT was in the 1970s or the 1980s are borne out of the slightly contradictory nature of the show’s timing in the Jon Pertwee years and earlier Baker adventures.

By fixing the bulk of the action in 1979, you wind up with a serial that’s quite similar in delivery to the contemporary stories in the new series. The serial jumps to a couple of other timeframes in the course of the action, but the indulgent establishing shots on Paris arguably serve to ground the show in a recognisable present in a way that it hadn’t been for a while.

Scaroth’s Twelve

Of course, the leisurely pace of Part One changes with a doozy of an ending, as the count gets a moment to himself and slips out of his human disguise, tearing the mask away to reveal a green-faced Scaroth, the last of the Jagaroth. Maybe it’s down to the high viewing figures embedding it in the cultural consciousness, but this is rightly remembered as one of the classic series’ most iconic cliffhangers.

From here onwards, there’s a brisker pace, which couples breezy, funny banter with a gradual unfurling of the complex time-jumping plot. Coining its own unique style of Who, it foreshadows… oh, let’s say every single episode Steven Moffat ever wrote. If you didn’t already know he loved this one, it wouldn’t be hard to guess that it’s probably his favourite.

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Speaking in 2005, Moffat said: “Douglas Adams brought to Doctor Who something completely useless. He brought the revelation of what Doctor Who would look like if it was written by a genius. Well, there just aren’t too many geniuses, so I don’t know that there’s much to learn from the way he did it.”

But the way that he did it is most obvious in the scene at Scarlioni’s chateau at the beginning of Part Two. The scene carries many of the serial’s most quotable lines, from “What a wonderful butler, he’s so violent” to “You’re a beautiful woman, probably”, but it also lends itself to a lesser-seen, more subversively funny incarnation of Who that suits Baker’s Doctor and Ward’s Romana right down to the ground.

Serving the more traditional companion’s role, Duggan is already investigating the Scarlionis when he’s dragged along in their wake. Despite his tendency to thump things first and think about them later (his use of the old saying about eggs and omelettes, while opening a wine bottle with the edge of a bar, is one of the serial’s best sight gags), he’s a perfect complement to the leads. He’s about as far from Adric as you can get, but part of us still wishes he’d joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the serial, as a ‘scientific advisor’ or otherwise.

Meanwhile, shortly before he played a Bond villain for real in For Your Eyes Only, Glover brings equal amounts of camp and class to Scaroth in all of his incarnations. As the characters learn that the opening spaceship explosion splintered Scaroth’s being throughout Earth’s history (a la Clara Oswald in The Name Of The Doctor), it turns out that he has accrued his vast wealth and influence through a series of long cons between his twelve selves in the past and future.

His latest scam involves commissioning Leonardo da Vinci to paint six more identical Mona Lisas in 1505 and then stealing the original from the Louvre in 1979 and selling each of the paintings to different private collectors to make seven times as much money. With his costly research and experiments, Scaroth is on the cusp of acquiring a working time machine.

As with his unfinished Season 17 finale Shada, a few elements of this story later turned up in Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Specifically, the bits where a spaceship crash kickstarts life on Earth and a time traveller seeks to undo it will be very familiar to fans of that book. While Adams didn’t novelise any of his serials for Target, he knew an interesting idea when he had one.

Beyond the sci-fi of it all, the serial makes a few fun jabs at the art world, whether it’s in the fun cameos from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as art critics who think the TARDIS is a gallery installation or the then-topical reference to alleged art forger Tom Keating. After he was acquitted at trial in 1979, it was reported that Keating wrote on the canvas of each forgery before painting over them, in much the same way as the Doctor writes “THIS IS A FAKE” in felt-tip pen underneath Leonardo’s spare Mona Lisas.

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Confronted about this by Duggan at the end of the serial, after the real Mona Lisa is presumed destroyed and one of the copies hangs in the Louvre, the Doctor shrugs that if people have to X-ray art to know it’s art, they’re not enjoying it properly.

“This is a fake”

On a similar tack, Adams responded to the initial fan backlash to the serial’s lighter tone with his usual panache.

He wrote: “If the programme didn’t move and take a few risks then it would have died of boredom years ago” – a sentiment that’s just as true of the show 40 years on as it was when the serial first aired.

Like Scaroth, City Of Death exists in recognisable fragments throughout later stories. In production terms, Nathan-Turner booked several more overseas shoots when he became the series’ producer. Furthermore, whether playing themselves or another planet, international locations have been a staple of Doctor Who’s ever-increasing production value since it returned to our screens in 2005.

On a more creative level, it mints the kind of funnier, wittier adventure that characterises the new series. Moreover, its high-concept timey-wimey shenaniganizing came back around in a big bad way when the format transitioned from multi-part serials to fast-paced 45-minute episodes.

The serial’s reputation has grown even more in fan circles since 2005, thanks in part to the excellent DVD release that hit shelves shortly after Russell T Davies’ first series concluded on BBC One. If you haven’t checked out the special features yet, it’s worth watching the excellent documentary Paris In The Springtime and the original comedy sketch Eye On Blatchford, a mockumentary about the second-to-last of the Jagaroth living in a rural English village.

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Granted, the extraordinary ratings of its original broadcast may have been the result of limited viewing options during the ITV strike. The serial’s audience increased week on week and peaked with Part Four, which was seen by 16.1 million people on 20th October 1979. For context, the highest-rated episode of New Who, Voyage Of The Damned, drew 13.3m on Christmas Day 2007.

The industrial action lasted from 10th August to 24th October, so City Of Death arrived right towards the end of that time. But if you had to choose one story to put in front of that many viewers, you couldn’t pick a better one than this lavish, entertaining sci-fi comedy. Incidentally, the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly, which continues to this day under the name Doctor Who Magazine, was published during the run of this serial, putting it alongside another first in the series’ long history.

For a serial that’s all about time, it couldn’t have been better timed. More than just a mere fluke of scheduling, it’s a gorgeously executed departure-from-format that was rarely attempted in the following years but proved to be hugely influential on the modern show’s writers. Taken on its own merits, it stands up just as well for the rapport between Baker, Ward, and the guest cast as for the innovation going on behind the scenes.

Read about all the new British drama on its way in 2019 and beyond here.